Hard Core Justice #1
March 17, 2020
When ruthless killers target them, even a safe house isn’t safe.
Only twenty-four hours remain until marshal Nick McKenna’s informant, Lori Carpenter, will testify against a powerful drug cartel. Nick has kept her safe for an entire year, but now all hell is breaking loose. With a team of cold-blooded assassins closing in, the by-the-book lawman decides to go rogue. He’ll risk his life for duty…and put it all on the line for his irresistible witness.
For a year Lori Carpenter had stayed indoors, under constant watch, cut off from family and friends and everything familiar, in hiding.
Dread ate away at her every day. There was nothing she could do besides prepare. But it still wasn’t enough, and now her time was up.
The arm lodged against her throat tightened.
“You let your guard slip,” he whispered in her ear, his elbow locked under her chin, blocking off her airway.
Her lungs strained, clogged with fear as she flailed.
“Show me what you are,” he growled.
Prey or a predator.
Adrenaline shot through her bloodstream, her heart beating like a snare drum. Survival instinct kicked in and the lead weighing down her limbs evaporated.
Lori thrust her elbow back into his ribs, once, twice. All the drills repeated day after day for fifty-five weeks came rushing to the forefront of her mind. To break away, she had to flip him. She slammed her heel down onto his foot. As she shrugged her shoulders, she hooked her foot behind one of his legs, seized the arm locked around her throat and bent at the knees.
His body rotated, going over her shoulder. Perfect execution of the maneuver.
But he grabbed her, taking her down hard with him to the concrete floor of the empty two-car garage. They rolled. Their arms and legs tangled.
She landed on top of US Deputy Marshal Nick McKenna and jammed her forearm against his throat. “I asked you to give me a challenging lesson. Not try to actually kill me.”
Nick was tough, deadly. There was a darkness to him. The kind bred from dealing in the worst sort of violence. She appreciated that about him; it bolstered her confidence that he’d be able to keep her alive. So far he hadn’t disappointed. But there was another side to him she preferred.
He tapped her arm, giving the cue their self-defense session was finished even though he was lethally capable of maneuvering free of her grasp.
Part of her wondered why he had let her flip him to the ground. No way she could’ve tossed him unless he’d allowed it. Besides the fact that he was powerfully built, he had years of training and experience she couldn’t compete with.
She took her arm off his larynx, put her hands on his muscular chest and kept his body pinned with her legs, straddling his hips. Her belly fluttered with raw awareness, so close to him, pelvis to pelvis, their lips a breath apart. He took up all the oxygen in the room.
Rubbing his throat, he stared up at her with those intense, bourbon-colored eyes that seemed to see everything. Her fear, her pain, her loneliness.
Everything except her desire for him.
His devastating dark looks were even more tempting dotted with facial stubble and covered in a sheen of sweat. “I’m pretty sure attempted homicide is not part of my job description.” The overheated gravel of his voice teased an itch that hadn’t been scratched in a long, long time.
He flashed a heart-stopping smile that sent a tingle shooting straight to her thighs.
“You were right. I have been too easy on you and that’s not doing you a favor.” He swept a long lock of her hair that’d slipped from her ponytail away from her face, tucking it behind her ear. The brush of his fingertips, his touch lingering seconds longer than it should’ve, made her stomach bounce as if she were still a naive girl who believed in true love and the magic of chemistry, instead of the older, wiser thirty-two-year-old woman she was today. “You need to know what the fear and the panic would feel like in a real-world scenario so you can think and fight your way through it.”
Nick had been an anchor during the bleakest months, her sensei, teaching her to punch, kick, throw a proper headbutt. And he had become a dear friend. A smart, steadfast, sexy friend she couldn’t stop thinking about crawling into bed with.
Ted Zeeman crossed the threshold, strolling into the garage while typing on a laptop. Good ole Ted always popped up before Nick and Lori slipped across the line of propriety, like he could smell their pheromones from the next room.
Lori stood and offered Nick a hand up from the ground.
He took it, putting his palm on hers even though he didn’t need her assistance, climbed to his feet and dusted himself off. Standing shy of six feet with broad shoulders and streamlined muscles that hinted at his leashed lethality, he wasn’t a huge guy, but his magnetic presence dominated a room. Or perhaps he simply dominated her attention.
She dismissed the ridiculous crush she had on Deputy Marshal McKenna. If she liked him, then beneath the suits and badge was a quintessential bad boy.
In her experience, bad boys equaled heartbreak. Every man she’d been attracted to had left scars. She wasn’t in the market for another festering wound.
“Are you nervous about your big day tomorrow?” Ted asked.
Weddings, funerals, your child being born…those were big days. Testifying in federal court against her in-laws’ financial firm for laundering millions was inevitable once she’d discovered what Wallace Capital Management, WCM, had been up to.
After she took the stand tomorrow, marshals she’d never met would give her a brand-new name and whisk her off into a brand-new life in a brand-new city.
Hopefully, not one in backcountry nowhere.
“Yeah, a little.” More like a lot. As in terrified.
“I’m about to file the morning report,” Ted said to Nick. “Anything you want me to add?”
“Did you annotate our excursion?” Nick asked.
“Yep. You betcha.” Ted nodded. “I reminded the boss, but I did the paperwork, too.”
One hour a day Lori was allowed off the premises. She usually relished the time jogging through the adjacent woods, but not today.
Ted slapped the classified US Marshals Services laptop closed. “I’m going to haul the trash out while you two get cleaned up so we can go shopping.” He rolled his eyes.
Lori might’ve been living in yoga pants, jeans and T-shirts since her mad dash out of San Diego after spilling her guts to the FBI, but she’d be damned if she was going to face her no-good, cheating ex-husband and his lying, criminal family in anything less than the best professional armor.
“Fifteen minutes and we’ll head out.” Ted tucked the laptop under his arm. “Tomorrow can’t get here soon enough. My last assignment will be done, and I can finally retire.”
“Are you going to get a little hut on a powdery beach like you want?” Nick asked him.
“Boy, I wish. It’s a one-bedroom condo in the Keys for me. You’ll have to visit.”
“Better believe it,” Nick said. “We’ll be out front in fifteen.”
Ted strode back into the country house that was isolated on two acres of land.
“How are you holding up?” Nick’s gaze found hers again, warming something inside her like it did whenever he looked at her that way. “It’s the homestretch.”
She should’ve been relieved. By noon tomorrow this nightmare would be over, but tension threaded through her, tightening her muscles. “My father-in-law, Sam, begged me to look the other way, keep my job at WCM and to forget everything.” Lori almost kept talking, almost dared to unburden herself of the secret she’d been carrying.
One stupid mistake had pulverized her life like a sledgehammer crushed a walnut.
It wasn’t as if she could hide it forever. The truth would come out in her testimony, but what would Nick think of her when he found out?
“Of course he did.” Nick ran his hands up and down her arms. “Without you, there is no case. We’re talking about millions of dollars a year. Billions. I’m sure whoever they launder money for are dangerous people and only care about their bottom line.”
A shiver raced through her. Nick had no idea how dangerous, but she knew all too well. “Sam told me there’s no way to win. That I’m going up against Goliath.” And her father-in-law hadn’t been talking about WCM. “He swore I wouldn’t live long enough to testify.”
The shiver deepened to a chill that seeped to her bones. The firm’s biggest dirty client was violent and ruthless, had endless resources and people everywhere.
It was a miracle she’d lived this long.
“Goliath is big and ferocious. But not invincible. David beat him and so will you.” Nick took both of her hands in his and held her gaze.
The gesture was small but heated her cheeks and chased away her goose bumps. The space around them seemed to shrink, due to his proximity and the quiet strength he radiated. At times his tall, dark and brawny package was menacing, but he could also be…gentle.
“No matter what, I’ll protect you and get you to court safely. Do you believe me?”
She believed he’d risk his life for duty and for any witness. “Yes.”
Nick had kept her safe for three hundred and eighty-six days. What could possibly go wrong in the next twenty-seven hours?
Nick’s gaze flickered up to Lori’s reflection in the rearview mirror of the car as he drove. Tension radiated from her slender body. Her expression was strained, her big brown eyes looking haunted. With her long chestnut hair loose and the flush of their workout gone from her cheeks, her fair skin was paler than normal. Somehow making the almost ethereal beauty about her more enticing.
The enormity of the transition she was going through wasn’t lost on him.
He could tell she was doing her best to hold it together and not let nerves derail her. For a year he’d studied her. Paid attention to her body language and every nuance.
Witnesses tended to get antsy in protective custody, especially over a long period of time, and sometimes they made bad decisions. Tried to bolt when they should’ve stayed put. Deviated from protocol instead of adhering to the strict rules.
Buddying up to them helped him keep his finger on the pulse of the situation; anticipate if things might go sideways because an informant was on the verge of unraveling.
What he hadn’t counted on was falling for a witness.
Lori had totally blindsided him. Several hours a day, seven days a week, watching her, talking to her, touching her during their self-defense lessons, was winding him up tighter than a watch spring. He’d never been so viscerally attracted to a woman. Everything about her excited him—her voice, those doe eyes staring at him, her silky hair he wanted to feel sliding across his belly, the knockout body he wanted to—
“Finally, we’re here,” Ted said, intruding on his thoughts.
Nick put the brakes on the inappropriate fantasy and leashed his raging hormones. Having an infatuation with a witness that bordered on obsessive was a reason to have his head examined.
He turned in to the mall parking lot and pulled into a spot close to the west side entrance. The trip had been approved by their boss and planned for two weeks. He and Ted had gone over the layout of the shopping center numerous times, had memorized the location of the security station and every exit, and had narrowed down the mall’s peak hours. That was why they’d chosen the morning, shortly after the mall opened when it would be quiet, no crowds and easy to control the environment.
They entered the mall through a side door and walked down a short corridor with a few stores. Only the tea shop appeared to be busy at this hour. An apron-clad clerk stood out front holding a tray of samples. An elderly gentleman with a salt-and-pepper crown, hobbling with a cane, approached the clerk and asked questions about the different varieties available to taste.
As they reached the central part of the shopping center, Nick was at Lori’s side and Ted at their six behind them. The entrance they used was the closest to the women’s business apparel store that Lori had chosen in advance. The walk was a short distance, but everything stretched before him, almost in slow motion.
Nick surveilled their surroundings, noting everyone in the vicinity. A couple, one pushing a stroller, the other with a baby in a carrier strapped to their body. Three fifty-something-year-old ladies power walking while engrossed in a lively discussion.
Nothing stood out or struck him as unusual, but there was a subtle tug of caution in his gut, like he was being watched. Another furtive glance around still didn’t pinpoint any cause for alarm. Why his pulse pounded, and his palms itched, he didn’t know. They’d taken Lori on a few other outings, although never to the mall, and never to the same place twice.
It was probably just the buildup of stress and pressure from his longest assignment drawing to a culmination with her set to testify tomorrow. They were so close to finishing this.
As much as he needed to keep Lori safe and get her through her testimony, he also wasn’t ready to let her go. She’d been the sole focus of his life for the better part of a year. Resetting and moving on didn’t seem possible. It certainly wasn’t desirable. If he had a choice, he’d keep on seeing her, talking with her, hell, sneaking in a permissible touch—every single day.
But that was the one thing he didn’t have a say in.
He brushed the thought aside, concentrating instead on what he could control.
They reached the women’s clothing store. As they walked inside, a chime dinged from a motion-activated PIR sensor he spotted.
An employee behind the register, wearing a blazer and sporting a curly bob, made eye contact and gave a perky smile.
One female customer perusing a row of blouses didn’t glance their way.
“Hello,” the young sales associate said, her warm voice rich with enthusiasm. “Right now we have a sale on accessories. Fifty percent off. Let me know if you need help finding anything.”
“Thank you,” Lori said.
“You’ve got twenty minutes.” Nick looked at his watch while Ted swept the rest of the store. “We’re in and out, okay?”
Lori went to a rack of suits. “You don’t give a gal much time.”
“One hour away from the property,” he said, reminding her of the rules. “Not a minute more.”
Nick’s attention flickered to the other customer.
The woman was in her early forties, petite, olive complexion, coal-black hair pulled in a tight bun. No jewelry, wore slacks and a blousy top and carried a leather purse. She reached up, taking a shirt from the upper rack, and the frilly bell sleeve of her blouse dropped an inch, revealing a tattoo of a black rose on the back of her hand. The ink fit her. Beautiful. Elegant. Dark.
Reflexively, Nick pressed his arm against the Glock 22 in his shoulder rig.
“I don’t see why I should be penalized because the house is thirty miles away,” Lori said, checking the size on a navy two-piece.
The low chime at the front threshold rang. Another woman entered the store. Bottled-bleach-blonde. Tall and thin. Jeans and a buttoned shirt. Sneakers that squelched lightly against the tile floor.
“Eighteen minutes,” Nick said, telegraphing with his hard tone this was nonnegotiable.
Lori cringed. “Yes, sir.” She gave him a mock salute. “Have I told you how much I hate it when you snarl orders at me like a drill sergeant?”
Snarl? And drill sergeants were the worst. No one liked them. “You’re exaggerating.”
“Try understating. When we’re out, you have two speeds. Icy cool and this Judge Dredd persona.”
Nick realized he sometimes came across as abrasive when he was in work mode, but that wasn’t the impression he was shooting for. At all.
She picked a suit from the rack. “This should work. I better go try it on. Tick-tock.”
Nick looked to Ted, where his partner stood at the entrance of the dressing rooms. Ted nodded, signaling the stalls were empty and he’d make sure no one followed Lori inside.
Blondie headed straight to some dresses hanging in the rear of the store, grabbed one almost mindlessly, or perhaps she’d been in before and knew what she was looking for, flicked a glance at a tag and made a beeline for the dressing rooms.
Ted lifted a palm, not letting the blonde in after Lori. The woman huffed and protested, raising a loud stink, but his partner held firm.
Show her your badge, Ted, and be done with it. Flashing the Eagle Top five-pointed star had a way of shutting down any complaints lickety-split.
“Who do you think you are?” Blondie asked with a fist on her hip.
“A US Deputy Marshal, ma’am,” Ted said. “Sorry for the inconvenience and the wait.”
“Listen, jerk. I need to get in there now.”
Ted laughed in his self-deprecating way. “Sorry. Not going to happen.”
The sales associate went over to the scene unfolding. “Hi,” she said brightly, her sunny disposition almost disarming. “Is there a problem?”
Nick maintained his position, monitoring the rest of the shop and the entrance.
Black Rose circled silent as a fox around to an ornate display of scarves and ran her fingers across the silk. Not once since they’d entered had she acknowledged their presence in the slightest. Until now.
Her gaze lifted, meeting his, her face an expressionless mask, but her sharp eyes were those of a merciless predator.
Prior experience as an army ranger in Afghanistan before becoming a marshal had taught him the hard way never to underestimate a woman with a slight build, or even a child for that matter, and the deep scar under his chin was a testament.
For a chilling instant they stared at one another, sizing the other up. Not from a physical perspective. It was an assessment of will. And what Nick saw in her was fathomless.
Blondie threw the dress at Ted, dividing Nick’s attention, and stormed out of the store.
The bell chimed. Black Rose’s steely eyes narrowed before she turned and strode unhurriedly toward the door—as if she had all the time in the world.
Then he saw it. Her low-heeled boots that didn’t make a sound.
His neck prickled the way it did when he was on a hunt for big game with his siblings. Nick followed. He had no reason to detain or question her, but something about that woman was wrong. From the tattoo, those rubber-soled shoes, to how she’d looked at him. As if she’d wanted to slice through him like a hot knife through butter.
None of it was evidence of anything and not cause for more than suspicion, but training and years of experience had taught him not to dismiss either.
The woman strolled away, lengthening the distance between them with each store she passed. One, two, three. But the tightening in his gut didn’t ease.
Black Rose glimpsed back at him over her shoulder, caught his fixed stare and stopped in her tracks. Pivoting, she turned and faced him, leveling her icy gaze his way. The look she sent him was full of loathing and in a blink it changed. Her lips hitched in an ominous half grin and she winked. Almost daring him to pursue.
Old ranger instincts urged him to take up the chase, confirm what his gut screamed about the woman, shake something that made sense out of her, but his training overruled recklessness.
He looked back in the quiet clothing store, checking on things.
Ted no longer stood stationed at the entrance of the dressing rooms.
Nick touched his Bluetooth earpiece. “Ted? What’s your position? Do you have eyes on Hummingbird?” he asked, using the codename for Lori.
Nick’s pulse spiked, but he remained calm—never one to succumb to panic. He stepped past displays and racks, his gaze scanning, his mind assessing.
No sign of Ted. Or the sales associate.
Drawing his gun, Nick hustled toward the dressing rooms.
Anticipation coiled in his chest, adrenaline roaring through him. The weight of his backup piece strapped to his ankle was a small comfort. Nick’s fingers tightened on his Glock. He reached the threshold, scanned left, then right.
Ted lay on the floor beyond the entrance in a corner. Blood soaked his white hair at the base of his skull.
Son of a— Ted was down.
There was no time to check if his partner was unconscious or dead. A commotion deeper in the dressing room drew him forward. Two people struggled inside the second stall.
The horror in Lori’s terrified whimper jolted his heart.